Every time the Liberal Democrats refuse to join a coalition they are criticised. The typical responses are things like “I thought you Lib Dems believed in coalitions?” or “How can you support proportional representation (PR) when you don’t want to join a coalition” or “What was the point of me voting Lib Dem if you refuse to go in to government when another party asks you to”. Indeed if you read some of the comments to a posting on Brown’s proposal to Ming on Nick Robinson’s newslog, you would think that the only reason for the Lib Dems to exist is to prop up other parties. So let me explain why I do not believe that we have a duty to go in to a coalition or some other arrangement with another party.
As a Liberal Democrat I do of course believe in proportional representation. It is a core part of my beliefs and a key part of the party’s principles, and is referred to in the preamble to the party’s constitution:
“We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections.”
But what it doesn’t say is “thou shalt join any coalition going”. I do believe in proportional representation, but I do not belive in coalition government out of principle. I simply accept that a natural consequence of electing a parliament where MPs are proportionate to their vote, is that coalition government will become inevitable as no party is likely to achieve 50% of the vote.
The Liberal Democrats exist, and stand for election, to achieve certain things. The party has a set of policies, that are guided by a liberal philosophy that has been engrained in the party for generations. It is these policies and principles that should guide you on whether to join a coalition or not. Basically, you need to decide whether the Liberal Democrat cause, and the things that your supporters voted for, are advanced sufficiently by the coalition that is on offer. If they aren’t, then you shouldn’t join it. The party’s cause could in fact be far better served better by turning it down and waiting until you can achieve more of what you want as the bigger party yourself or by working with someone else.
Some of the comments about Gordon Brown’s proposal to include Lib Dems in his cabinet talk about him “breaking the mould”, or being “progressive” or “forward thinking”. But I don’t see how putting people in your cabinet from a party that people didn’t elect in to government is any of those things. People always complain that politicians are dishonest. Surely it is dishonest to include in your cabinet people who do not believe in the party’s manifesto.
This may sound like me arguing against proportional representation. But I would argue that you work with the system you have got, and the current system gave Labour an overall majority and that is therefore what people voted for. If people had voted the same as last time but under a PR system then no party would have been put in to government and an arrangement would have had to be made between parties. Mind you, had we had PR last time people’s voting intentions could well have been very different anyway so it’s difficult to assume anything.
The Lib Dem refusal to work with Brown as a part of the cabinet should not however, mean that the Lib Dems should never co-operate on any formation of policy. Just as the constitutional convention in Scotland saw Labour, SNP, Lib Dems and those of no party at all working together to produce a plan for a Scottish Parliament, the same sort of thing could happen routinely within the Westminster arena on a host of policy areas. Indeed it would probably be a useful reform of parliament to make these things a formally recognised part of how parliament works. We do have select committees, but it might make sense for there to be a mechanism for two or more parties (or individual members of parties) to choose to come together to look at certain topics where there is already some unanimity between them and to then be formally recognised in a way that would allow them to access parliamentary resources, debating time and voting. I accept that it would be hard for these groups to change policy under First Past The Post, but they could carry real clout under PR and without the need to form proper coalition governments to achieve what they want. If these “conventions” did become a formal procedure in the House of Commons, they would also have the advantage of ensuring that any formed between Labour and the Lib Dems was not seen as a prelude to a coalition.
The Lib Dems are getting a hammering in some papers and online about its decision to not work with Labour. But the party is pretty united in being against it. Far from splitting the party as most papers seem to believe, it should unite it. The membership probably believe Ming’s decision is right, the MPs do, so where is the split? If it will split any party, it should be Labour who will be angry with Brown’s plan to include a member of a smaller party in their cabinet when he doesn’t have to.
NICK ROBINSON’S NEWSLOG: High Stakes
BBC POLITICS: Lib Dem anger over Brown ‘tricks’